Biden AdministrationUkraine InvasionInflationEnergyCybersecurity

Warren Pulls Ahead, Candidates Still Figuring Out the ‘How’—What We Learned From Last Night’s Democratic Debate

October 16, 2019, 12:14 PM UTC

Democratic White House candidates are seeing fellow presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) as the key competition, banding together against President Trump, but must get clearer on how they will work with grassroots movements.

Those are some takeaways from Tuesday night’s debate in Westerville, Ohio, between 12 Democrats seeking to defeat President Donald Trump in 2020, political observers told Fortune.

Dynamics emerged on the stage at Otterbein University that showed some candidates have decided that going after Warren is a good strategy—a sign that her status as a key opponent has been elevated in their eyes.

Warren has been holding real estate in the top three spots in polls alongside frontrunner Joe Biden, the former vice president, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is recuperating from a recent heart attack.

During Democrats’ fourth round of verbal sparring, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) repeatedly nudged Warren to join her in pushing to regulate Trump’s Twitter account; former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) said Warren has yet to explain her wealth tax strategy; and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) attacked Warren about her health care plan, saying that Sanders had explained taxes would rise for everyone under his single-payer blueprint.

“At least Bernie is being honest here and saying how he’s going to pay for this and that taxes are going to go up,” Klobuchar said, labeling Warren’s plan a “pipe dream.”

Behavioral psychology professor Alixandra Barasch of New York University studies anger and emotional displays, and how they affect status and power. She has been watching the White House campaign through this lens. 

“I study the psychology of how groups emerge and how you kind of see subgroups within the field ganging up on the common enemy,” said Barasch, NYU Stern professor. “You kind of saw that,” she said of Tuesday’s debate and the dynamics with Warren.

Barasch said her research also shows that displays of high levels of anger can damage a person’s reputation, but moderate displays can make someone appear more competent and raise status. Barasch said she believes this came into play as Democrats went after Warren and as she reacted.

“Watching her emotional expressions in those moments was interesting for me,” Barasch said. “She can’t express the same level of anger and emotion maybe that other candidates can. There’s the desire to keep things in check.”

But where the candidates might have been clear on their desire to challenge Warren, they were not clear on how they would push for justice issues at the top of the national conversation, Rashad Robinson, president of the Color of Change civil rights organization, told Fortune

On Twitter, Robinson blasted Democrats for not addressing issues like police accountability, voting rights, LGBTQ discrimination, climate justice, and more.

In a telephone interview Tuesday night after the debate, Robinson said, “The big thing that we are still trying to figure out is not just the why but the how.”

“We still need to fully understand how these candidates are going to push back against all the forces,” Robinson said. “I think they all have work to do in terms of helping to explain that and helping to channel for us how they’re going to make that happen.”

Despite pointing out what he sees as somewhat of a disconnect, Robinson said he was encouraged to see a number of candidates speak “explicitly” about racial violence. He said he was particularly moved by the moment in which Julian Castro, former housing secretary under President Barack Obama, brought up the case of Atatiana Jefferson, a black Fort Worth woman by police through her window while she played video games with her nephew.

Castro made the comments during discussion about whether mandatory gun buybacks can stem violence. He suggested there would be issues with a program that would compel police to go door to door.

Of the former police officer who shot Jefferson, Castro said, “He didn’t even announce himself, and within four seconds, he shot and killed her through his home window.”

To loud applause, Castro continued, “She was in her own home, and so I am not going to give these police officers another reason to go door-to-door in certain communities because police violence is also gun violence, and we need to address that.”

Robinson said the moment was one of the most notable of the evening. “Castro talked very clearly about police violence.”

While the candidates may have not been uniformly clear about their activism, several did make it clear that they want to display a show of unity in defeating President Donald Trump.

Sanders thanked his competitors on the stage for their well wishes after his October 1 heart attack. Klobuchar said Democrats can win the swing state of Ohio if they can stop fighting. And Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), perhaps the most conciliatory voice of all, praised fellow candidates for various statements. At one point, he commended Harris for her call to preserve women’s reproductive rights. 

Booker said Democrats must be strategic and unified.

“We have one shot” to get Trump out of the White House, he said. “How we talk about each other in this debate actually really matters.”

Barasch, the academic who studies emotion and status, suggested Booker’s demeanor showed competence.

“I picture his emotional expressions from the previous debates, the furrowed brow – here, he was less upset and angry,” she said. “I think it does signal a sort of measured emotional regulation.”

The next Democratic debate will take place on November 20 in metropolitan Atlanta, and will be hosted by MSNBC and The Washington Post

More must-read stories from Fortune:

Who is Tom Steyer? 2020 Democratic candidate debates for the first time tonight
—Will the candidates debate over health care for gig workers?
—The four candidates at risk going into the Democratic debate
—For big gig economy companies, California is no longer a Golden State
—As the steel industry falters, will Trump pay a political price?
Get up to speed on your morning commute with Fortune’s CEO Daily newsletter.